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Fingertip Travellers

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 10, Autumn 2014

The term “armchair tourist” has become familiar. It describes someone with a penchant for travel shows on telly and DVD; a follower of adventurers’ blogs, feeds and podcasts. They experience the sights of the world from the comfort of their couch with a mixture of amazement, admiration, jealousy and relief that someone else is doing it. They learn an awful lot. They may even go to some of these places one day.

And here we are: Issue 10 is full of beautiful projects inspired by different folk textile traditions from around the world. These designs originate from times when more discrete communities existed, pre-internet and even mass printing, before trains and certainly air travel. Because there was less movement and connection between communities, patterns and techniques developed that are highly recognisable as anchored to a specific geographic region. But, if there is one thing I know about crafters then and now, it is that we love to learn new things. Perhaps as a way to counterbalance the fact that we maintain ancient skills, we also tend to be early adopters of the new technologies at our disposal. Maybe it’s our innate overactive curiosity and itchy fingers that drive us to be makers in the first place.

It has become so easy to find and adopt designs from around the world, but this makes me wonder who is currently responsible for keeping these folk traditions alive? Does it have to be in your blood? Can you marry into it? Can you move into it? Can it still count as part of a folk tradition if you are geographically half the world away? What if the colours you use didn’t exist at the time when our idea of that particular folk tradition is anchored? Can you and should you use the technological advancements at your disposal? Recently, at a mending get-together (like a knitting circle or quilting bee, but for fixing things), I sat next to a sock knitter who made socks for her family to take part in historical reenactments. Everything had to be specific to the era they were obsessed with. I couldn’t help thinking that the folks they were aping would have jumped at the chance to make their calves less pointy, heels more comfortable and toes less square, but she followed the pattern to the T.

There is another crafting and authenticity conundrum that perplexes me: the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school of craft. Let me illustrate this with a response we got to Ricefield Collective, a project I started with friends. It saw me teaching 25 indigenous women how to knit on the side of a mountain in the Philippines for 5 months last year. We got support from around the world, especially via the online crafting community. There was much excitement and communication about what we were up to and, of course, a couple of complicated questions to field. The most challenging were along the lines of ‘why are you teaching them knitting, don’t they have a strong weaving tradition?’

The question itself didn’t confuse me: it means that traditions should be maintained. It means that people with a direct link to their heritage should be responsible for keeping it alive (sometimes with outside support). And the answer to the second half of the question was a resounding YES. Where it gets confusing to me is in the subtext. Why it is that We – Developed WorId’/’Global North/’Rich People’/(insert your current term of choice) – can take as many courses as we like, be crafting polyglots,find inspiration from around the globe while snacking on ‘ethnic’ food and giving ourselves RSI tapping on our tablets, but we want and expect Other Folks – ‘Developing Nations’/’Global South’/’Poor People’/(again, insert your current term of choice) – to keep their specific traditions alive and unsullied? So we don’t have to? So we can be spectators of their ‘authentic’ lives?

Perhaps if you’re from pure Shetland stock it falls in your lap to keep your Fair Isle knitting traditions alive. And because they are your traditions you are allowed to update them with synthetics, fluorescents and a sprinkling from somewhere else. The same goes for Aran, Navajo, Tuareg, Muhu, T’boli, Masai and Gee’s Bend (the list goes on). There will be fussers and naysayers, but it’s your inheritance to mess with. But what happens to those of us with mixed or multiple heritage? Do we have to choose? Just imagine your grandmothers each came from an amazing knitting tradition: one was half Latvian, half Turkish and other half Peruvian, half Icelandic. Stranger things have happened – and I haven’t even mentioned your grandfathers.

It is the very portability of textiles that has made them so valuable for millennia. Whether you were a nomad, immigrant, trader, soldier, explorer, refugee or bride: textiles were, and remain, essential and easy to carry to your next stop or home. Some started the journey with you and others got picked up along the way as trophies, spoils and souvenirs. Some were worn and others were schlepped. They were vessels of identity and wealth. They still are today, but global fast fashion, made possible by the combined forces of the industrial and digital revolution (reliant on oil to transport it all and huge disparities of wealth) is rapidly changing our visual identities as being geographically bound. What I am curious about is what ‘folk’ means now that so many of us have inspiration at our fingertips. All you need is a good search term and the world is your oyster.

That is not to say that there wasn’t mobility of people, skills and designs before the advent of mass travel and the World Wide Web; it was just a lot slower. The folk traditions we think of as being from THAT place since FOREVER actually travelled there from somewhere else. Here’s what I think. Fashion exists because we are social creatures. We kind of like looking like our family and neighbours. They’re likely to be our teachers in how to dress ourselves. It’s not just an aesthetic concern, it’s survival; there’s a strong chance the people around us have already worked out a good way to dress to suit the local environment. Previously making your own clothes was a necessity for the majority and your community taught you how; it wasn’t a hobby or scholarly pursuit. You learnt directly from someone that this or that was the best way they knew how to spin, weave, cut and stitch to keep you warm, dry, safe and decent.

Then the decorating could begin! Inspiration came from whatever was under your nose, because there wasn’t a library or newspaper stand bursting with publications telling you what’s hot or not, outside visitors were scarce and there certainly was no Interweb. And boy did they come up with some amazing, beautiful, detailed and crazy shit! Folk traditions are testimony that decoration and functionality are intimately bound. By pushing boundaries and challenging yourself as a maker and then sharing those skills, you challenge and push your ability as a community to come up with even more breathtaking things. I could look endlessly at images of ‘folk’.

So that term, armchair tourist – does it sound familiar? How about if we substitute ‘tourist’ with ‘crafter’? There are fewer craft-related telly programs, but what is lacking on one screen we make up for on another with Ravelry, Etsy and an overabundance of blogs. The main difference however is that we are also making, not merely viewing I hope). We may be in our homes, LYSs and craft circles, but we are experiencing and translating our armchair tourism to our fingertips. Rather than tourists we are travellers, prepared to engage with more than a guide book and camera; we like to smell the smells and walk the walk – maybe get a little dirty. We are Fingertip Travellers. Let us travel lightly and share what we know. We may even go back in time as we travel to the future.